26 February 2015

2016 US Presidential Race: reflections at the starting gate


Now that the United States 2014 midterm elections are safely in the rear view mirror, the political classes in Washington and elsewhere are busily handicapping the potential presidential nominees for both parties. The common wisdom is that the Democratic nomination is Hillary Clinton’s for the asking, and that the Republican contest is wide-open and subject to serious competition. I think that the first part of this analysis is not as cut and dried as is commonly claimed. The second correct is surely correct, with no clear favorite. Let me take the issues up in order.

I agree with all the pundits who have concluded that the Clinton machine is too powerful and well-oiled for anyone within the party, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren included, to stop her from the nomination. But her support is broad, not deep. The Warren strategy seems to be to pull Clinton further to the left in order to garner the support of her restive populist troops. That maneuver has already paid some dividends, as the Clinton-Warren powwows have shifted the center of gravity of the Clinton campaign. Mrs. Clinton needs Elizabeth Warren to galvanize the party’s left-wing. If she runs, down the road, Clinton will have to worry whether the Warren embrace will drive away those wary independents who do not share Warren’s fervor against all things Wall Street.

But that “if” may matter. Will she run? The conventional wisdom is that neither Hillary or Bill can resist the allure of political office. If desire was all that mattered, Hillary is in. But for any presidential candidate, health issues are critical. Such was surely the case with John McCain back in 2008, and they could prove relevant in this case. There are whispered reports that Clinton has not left her behind health issues, including fainting spells and blood clots, that could be serious for any person approaching 70, who has to endure the battle of a presidential campaign followed by the nonstop stress of public office. Mrs. Clinton is not the quick-study that her husband was. She needs to hunker down and prepare, which is hard to do in any presidential campaign. Fatigue introduces errors in judgment and in execution.

At this point there are these questions. The first is whether she would want to run these risks for a job she has long coveted. The second is whether the public will support her without having a fuller picture of her health status, which matters a lot more that Barack Obama’s Columbia College transcript or Mitt Romney’s net worth. Perhaps she has delayed the announcement of her campaign because she has yet to decide whether to run. If so, Elizabeth Warren’s steely determination not to run becomes a stroke of political genius. Sans Hillary, Warren would be the instant front-runner in an otherwise thin Democratic field, because she is a party regulate who can inspire passion from those who are at present resigned to Hillary getting the nomination. This is not a done deal to say the least.

The situation is quite different on the Republican side of the ledger. Many Republican hopefuls have already made extensive pitches to donors to determine the early winner. Mitt Romney bowed out when it became clear that his former supporters did not think that he should try a third time after two earlier disappointing performances.

So the question is who will come in to fill the void. At this point, it is hard to predict a front-runner. Jeb Bush, who just turned 62, was a successful Florida governor, and he is a serious political thinker. But his age and his name cut against him, and it is unclear whether he can succeed in dealing with the resurgent Republican right. My guess is that he would do fine if he were to win the Presidency, but he will have rough going against a crew of younger candidates, one of whom, Marco Rubio, also comes from Florida. Head-to-head with a healthy Hillary Clinton, he would probably lose unless the foreign policy situation, on which Clinton is already vulnerable, gets even worse. Don’t count him out.

My own sense is that Kentucky Senator Rand Paul will not make it. The early returns have indicated that his has “bombed” in his earlier efforts to attract money. And on substantive issues, I have already expressed my deep uneasiness with his position on both domestic and foreign issues. It is perfectly sensible to want to shrink the size of government, but it is important to get the right priorities, and on those issues I don’t have knowledge that Paul knows enough about the complex regulatory and tax issues facing the United States to get it right. I also think that his sometime isolationism is not the right prescription in the current situation. Voices like his are vital for the Senate, but his skill set does not translate well into the executive office.

I also doubt that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie can make the distance. He is a naturally divisive leader and right now has his hands filled with a pension/budget problem in New Jersey that will not go away in the short term. It is hard to run for President when state governance has to take up all your waking hours. I might also add that I did not approve of Christie’s performance when he was US attorney for the state of New Jersey, when he put the screws on pharmaceutical firm Bristol Myers Squibb with a totally inappropriate deferred prosecution agreement that asserted far too much control over the internal operations of the company for its violation of the securities laws. These issues tend to fall by the wayside with the passage of time, but they are sure to resurface if Christie makes any serious presidential bid.

At this point, it does not seem likely that Texas Senator Ted Cruz will have a real shot at the nomination, as his politics are too divisive and polarizing. He has alienated people within his own party, and is unlikely to have much appeal to the large bloc of independent voters on whom this election will turn. In contrast, Florida Senator Marco Rubio projects a much more positive image to potential backers, which should offer him solid nomination prospects.

The one candidate for whom I have some real admiration is Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, for the simple reason that he actually stands for something. The labor issues with public unions in the United States have not reached the dire proportions that they did in England when Margaret Thatcher had to face down the trade unions after she assumed office in 1979. Nonetheless, the question of union power remains one of the major sources of contention in public employment, and Walker had the courage to take on the public workers unions and to beat them at their own game overcoming fierce opposition to his programs at every step of the way. He was able to weather a recall election in 2012 and to win reelection in 2014. Right now it appears that Wisconsin will join the ranks of the right-to-work states, which means that nonunion workers need not pay union dues to support union operations.

Born in 1967, Walker is a young candidate, which could inject some fresh blood into the campaign, and would present a striking and favorable contrast to Hillary Clinton if she were the Democrat front-runner. Like all governors he has the advantage of real executive experience, which US senators generally lack. But at the same time, he is inexperienced in foreign affairs, which could prove a serious handicap along the way. Nonetheless, he is an effective speaker and a quick learner, and may well have a solid shot of getting the nomination on the Republican side. At this point, however, the situation is deservedly very fluid, and the success of the various candidates may be yet turn on surprising turns in world or national events. The combination of high stakes and major uncertainties should make this election one of the most exciting and unpredictable in decades.

Richard Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law, The Peter and Kirsten Bedford Senior Fellow at The Hoover Institution, and the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law Emeritus and Senior Lecturer at the University of Chicago.